Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir

BWV 038 // For the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity

(In deep distress I cry to Thee) for soprano, alto and tenor, vocal ensemble, trombone I–IV, oboe I+II, bassoon, strings and continuo.

First performed on 29 October 1724, the cantata “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (In deep distress I cry to thee), opens with a motet-style introductory chorus underscored by trombones – a choice of form and instrumentation most fitting to the venerated hymn on which the movement is based, namely Martin Luther’s version of Psalm 130. It seems that the hymn’s earnest character and distinctive Phrygian tonality made a composition in stile antico particularly appropriate; indeed, Bach also used this style for his six-part organ setting of the same hymn (BWV 686).

J.S. Bach-Stiftung Kantate BWV 38

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Workshop
Reflective lecture

«Lutzogram» for the introductory workshop

Rudolf Lutz’s manuscript for the workshop
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Audio

The sound recording of this work is available on several streaming and download platforms.

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Performers

Soloists

Soprano
Guro Hjemli

Alto
Ruth Sandhoff

Tenor
Johannes Kaleschke

Choir

Soprano
Guro Hjemli, Noëmi Tran Rediger, Jennifer Rudin

Alto
Antonia Frey, Jan Börner, Lea Scherer, Olivia Heiniger

Tenor
Nicolas Savoy, Manuel Gerber, Marcel Fässler

Bass
Philippe Rayot, Matthias Ebner, Othmar Sturm

Orchestra

Conductor
Rudolf Lutz

Violin
Renate Steinmann, Livia Wiersich

Viola
Joanna Bilger

Violoncello
Maya Amrein

Violone
Iris Finkbeiner

Oboe
Meike Gueldenhaupt, Gilles Vanssons

Bassoon
Susann Landert

Trombone
Ulrich Eichenberger, Wolfgang Schmid, Christian Braun, Christian Brühwiler

Organ
Ives Bilger

Musical director & conductor

Rudolf Lutz

Workshop

Participants
Karl Graf, Rudolf Lutz

Reflective lecture

Speaker

Robert Nef

Recording & editing

Recording date
06/06/2007

Recording location
Trogen

Sound engineer
Stefan Ritzenthaler

Director
Meinrad Keel

Production manager
Johannes Widmer

Production
GALLUS MEDIA AG, Switzerland

Producer
J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, Switzerland

About the work

Librettist

Text No. 1, 4, 6
Martin Luther, 1524

Text No. 2, 3, 5
Rearrangement by an unknown writer

First performance
29 October 1724

In-depth analysis

First performed on 29 October 1724, the cantata “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (In deep distress I cry to thee), opens with a motet-style introductory chorus underscored by trombones – a choice of form and instrumentation most fitting to the venerated hymn on which the movement is based, namely Martin Luther’s version of Psalm 130. It seems that the hymn’s earnest character and distinctive Phrygian tonality made a composition in stile antico particularly appropriate; indeed, Bach also used this style for his six-part organ setting of the same hymn (BWV 686). The chorus opens with dense imitation in the lower voices, preparing each entry of the chorale melody in the soprano voice. In the closing lines, a pedal point on the note E serves as an effective means of both building tension and interpreting the text. While the sustained note reflects the word “stand”, the overlying harmonic tension reveals that mortal sinners indeed cannot stand before God. As such, Bach’s rendering of the question “Who can, Lord, stand before thee?” contains at one and the same time a damning response that charges the cantata with a pervading sense of existential woe.

The following alto recitative addresses this admission of sin by employing the classic Protestant tenet of justification by faith: “In Jesus’ mercy will alone our comfort be and our forgiveness rest”. Yet, in good Lutheran tradition, the faith needed to secure the promised comfort is lacking – the remaining lines are dedicated to this question of faith and the dilemma of overcoming affliction to attain peace of mind. The tenor aria then introduces a soothing turnaround, with the solo part weaving between the cantabile woodwind lines and an edgy basso continuo – an unusual voicing and a veritable “comfort amidst the suffering”. The subtlety of Bach’s compositional mastery is particularly apparent here in the concise continuo figure that not only culminates in a dissonant leap on the word “suffering”, but equally creates a rocking effect that reflects the word “comfort”.
The soprano recitative is marked “a battuta” (in strict time), perhaps unsurprisingly considering that the chorale melody is played through in full by the continuo. This approach lends the movement a certain aria-like quality, while still allowing for a convincing rendering of the fraught text.
The trio aria opens with a basso continuo ritornello that draws the listener immediately into the movement through its penetrating descending figure. The autonomy of this element enables Bach to uphold structural constancy in the face of an enticing variety of images in the libretto. While the intertwined descending lines echo the “fetters” of despair in the first vocal passage, this descent is effectively reversed by an ascending broken triad (“How soon appears the hopeful morning”) at the beginning of the second section. Nevertheless, by reverting to the music of the tragic opening for the closing phrase “upon the night of woe and sorrow”, and applying the basso continuo ritornello in the vocal parts, Bach ends the movement with a clear-sighted, rather than pessimistic, message on the persistence of suffering, despair and doubt. A chorale on the last verse of the Lutheran hymn, once again underscored by the dark timbre of the trombones, closes this extraordinarily expressive work.

Libretto

1. Chor

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir
Herr Gott, erhör mein Rufen;
dein’ gnädig Ohr’ neig her zu mir
und meiner Bitt sie öffne.
Denn so du willt das sehen an,
was Sünd und Unrecht ist getan,
wer kann, Herr, vor dir bleiben?

2. Rezitativ (Alt)

In Jesu Gnade wird allein
der Trost vor uns und die Vergebung sein,
weil durch des Satans Trug und List
der Menschen ganzes Leben
vor Gott ein Sündengreuel ist.
Was könnte nun die Geistesfreudigkeit
zu unserm Beten geben,
wo Jesu Geist und Wort
nicht neue Wunder tun?

3. Arie (Tenor)

Ich höre mitten in den Leiden
ein Trostwort, so mein Jesus spricht.
Drum, o geängstigtes Gemüte,
vertraue deines Gottes Güte,
sein Wort besteht und fehlet nicht,
sein Trost wird niemals von dir scheiden!

4. Rezitativ (Sopran) und Choral

Ach! dass mein Glaube noch so schwach,
und dass ich mein Vertrauen
auf feuchtem Grunde muss erbauen!
Wie ofte müssen neue Zeichen
mein Herz erweichen!
Wie? kennst du deinen Helfer nicht,
der nur ein einzig Trostwort spricht,
und gleich erscheint,
eh deine Schwachheit es vermeint,
die Rettungsstunde.
Vertraue nur der Allmachtshand
und seiner Wahrheit Munde!

5. Arie (Terzett Sopran, Alt, Bass)

Wenn meine Trübsal als mit Ketten
ein Unglück an dem andern hält,
so wird mich doch mein Heil erretten,
dass alles plötzlich von mir fällt.
Wie bald erscheint des Trostes Morgen
auf diese Nacht der Not und Sorgen!

6. Choral

Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel,
bei Gott ist viel mehr Gnade;
sein Hand zu helfen hat kein Ziel,
wie gross auch sei der Schade.
Er ist allein der gute Hirt,
der Israel erlösen wird
aus seinen Sünden allen.

Bibliographical references

All libretti sourced from Neue Bach-Ausgabe. Johann Sebastian Bach. Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, published by the Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut Göttingen and the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Series I (Cantatas), vol. 1–41, Kassel and Leipzig, 1954–2000.
All in-depth analyses by Anselm Hartinger (English translations/editing by Alice Noger-Gradon/Mary Carozza) based on the following sources:  Hans-Joachim Schulze, Die Bach-Kantaten. Einführungen zu sämtlichen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs, Leipzig, 2nd edition, 2007; Alfred Dürr, Johann Sebastian Bach. Die Kantaten, Kassel, 9th edition, 2009, and Martin Petzoldt, Bach-Kommentar. Die geistlichen Kantaten, Stuttgart, vol. 1, 2nd edition, 2005 and vol. 2, 1st edition, 2007.

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